On the one-year anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of more than 200 school girls from Chibok, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, in a New York Times op-ed, concisely laid out his approach to defeating Boko Haram. His op-ed is remarkable for its candor, realism, and its recognition of his government’s need to address the social and economic drivers of support for Boko Haram.
Throughout his career, Buhari has been a Nigerian nationalist, a sensibility among many Nigerians that has been in retreat since the aftermath of the 1967-70 civil war. It is no surprise that he states that “…the answer to defeating Boko Haram begins and ends with Nigeria.” Unlike the Jonathan government that remains in office until May 29, he does not shift responsibility to foreign militaries and leaders by characterizing Boko Haram as the latest front in the international war on terrorism and therefore an international responsibility. Having established the principle that Boko Haram is Nigeria’s responsibility, he goes on to welcome the resumption of a military training relationship with the United States, and calls for better coordination with Chad and Niger in the fight against Boko Haram. In Nigeria, he says, he will deploy more troops from other parts of the country “…where for too long they have been used by successive governments to quell dissent.”
Naming poverty and ignorance as the causes of Boko Haram, Buhari is far more direct than his predecessor. "If you are starving and young and in search of answers as to why your life is so difficult, fundamentalism can be alluring….” Boko Haram offers “…impressionable young people money and the promise of food, while the group’s mentors twist their minds with fanaticism.” The solution, Buhari says, is to offer an alternative, especially by boosting education, in particular for girls. Buhari is clear about the order of his priorities: first, defeat Boko Haram and then reform education.
Regarding the Chibok girls, Buhari is forthright: he does not know where the girls are or whether they can be rescued. He refuses to make promises of rescue that he may not be able to keep. Instead, he promises that his government will do everything it can to “bring them home.”
Buhari’s op-ed is less than 900 words, only about 300 words longer than this post. Yet its analysis of Boko Haram and how to counter it is remarkably astute. The specific measures he proposes are practical and within his authority and ability to implement. In his call for the restoration of a military training relationship with the United States, he will be pushing against an open door. The relationship was suspended in the first place by Abuja, not Washington. Other West African nations have long complained about the absence of Nigerian leadership. They are likely to welcome his coordination of their efforts against Boko Haram. In short order, he can redeploy the Nigerian military in a more effective way.
Over the long term, Buhari makes no grandiose promises of “economic development.” Instead, his focus is on education. (So, too, was the 2014 plan authored by Jonathan’s National Security Advisor, Sambo Dasuki, that has largely remained a dead letter.) It is remarkable, and encouraging, that in one of his first, major policy pronouncements, he has a focus on female education.
Buhari’s op-ed may be an indication of his leadership style: enunciation of clear principles and direction without micro-management. In a country as big and complex as Nigeria, this is a wise approach. But, he will need a strong team to implement his vision.